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Cruise Ship Review
Song of America
By
Brent Betit

Song of America Bermuda Cruise September 1997

Song of America

This is a Test

This is a test. This is only a test. Remember those old radio announcements, and the annoying bleeeep you'd hear right after them? Well, the following describes a kind of test, but here's hoping that what follows isn't quite so irritating as that old radio sound.

Most cruise industry professionals will tell you that there exists a cruise experience for everyone -- and that the reasons some people refuse to try cruising have more to do with misinformation than reality. Many travelers considering where to take their next vacation think that they are too individualistic, too active, too sophisticated, too poor, too 'a thousand other things' to enjoy cruising. I'll admit I've been guilty of that kind of thinking; and even now, having cruised a few times, don't automatically think of a cruise when I hear the word vacation. When I'm traveling with my wife, I'm content to try the kinds of trips she's comfortable with, and most of the time this means quite traditional "fun in the sun" vacations -- which is why I tried cruising to begin with. When I'm traveling by myself, however, my own rather distinct personality takes over, and I develop a number of perhaps odd requirements that it would be a stretch to call "traditional" or even "average." All of which is a convoluted way of saying that recently I put Royal Caribbean to the vacation test.

I'm a quirky traveler, probably not the kind of guy cruise brochures are written for. I'm fairly reserved, not a joiner, and don't really care for organized activities of any kind. A typical stiff-necked Vermonter, in other words. And I'm low-maintenance, pretty easily entertained. I don't watch television, for example. Given a preference, I'll listen to classical music over anything else. My idea of a ripping good time is settling down with a cup of steaming hot tea and a novel. I've lived in the country my entire life, and hate crowds and noise, and of course, lines drive me absolutely crazy. Back in my hometown, you have to drive half an hour to find the nearest stoplight. While traveling I could (and have) spent days in a museum, stumbling around with a dazed but satisfied look on my face, and that is one of the few experiences for which I will suffer cities.

Which is why two years ago, when work and family responsibilities were getting more than a bit tiresome, and it had been eighteen months between vacations, my sainted wife gifted me with a ten day trip to Europe, including visits to the Musee D'Orsay, the British National Museum, the Louvre, and a number of other fine museums and historical sites. This was a solo trip, and I came back quite exhilarated by all the things I had seen and done -- and equally exhausted. Plane, bus, and train connections on a whirlwind tour through Europe can try even the stoutest constitution. On my last day, I boarded a bus at 6:00 a.m. in the heart of Paris, caught a British Midlands flight to Heathrow, took another bus to Gatwick, flew Virgin Atlantic from London to Logan, and journeyed from Boston to Vermont by commercial limousine, arriving home at about 10:00 p.m. barely able to carry my own bags. I had an absolutely wonderful time, but didn't even come close to achieving what was the whole purpose of the trip: rest and relaxation.

This year, I was in a similar situation, having completed one of the busiest years professionally that I have ever experienced (and also having been informed by my wife that it was high time I got away by myself for awhile). But this year, I spent more time thinking about what my vacation goals were. It turned out that there were only a few: I wanted to travel, but to do so without making a dozen transportation connections a day. I wanted to be somewhere that I could relax and do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to. I wanted to be out of reach of most modern communication devices. I wanted good food and abundant quantities of sunshine, in comfortable and relaxing surroundings. I didn't want to be constantly surrounded by people and noise. I wanted all of this to be affordable. What a dreamer! "Like no vacation on earth," you're probably saying. Strange -- that's one of Royal Caribbean's marketing lines.

Having decided that a cruise on a smaller ship might possibly achieve most if not all of the things I wished to do, I queried Sharon Jackson about possibilities. I gave her a few of my requirements, the most important of which was a very stingy travel budget. Within a week, we had traded a couple of email messages regarding possible cruises, ending in a September 28th booking on a Royal Caribbean ship.


Huge Atriums Give Way to an Intimate Lobby on the Song of America

So as I write this, I've recently returned from a seven-day cruise to Bermuda aboard RCI's Song of America. I came back tanned and relaxed, with my trousers fitting only a wee little bit snugger. And even though I'm a quirky traveler, I experienced nearly everything I wished to on this vacation, traveling to an exotic locale in style, at the budget I had earlier established, and I felt in control of my vacation in ways I never do when I'm hustling to make plane and train connections. (On this trip, I boarded an RCI-chartered bus in Springfield, Massachusetts, which delivered me right to the ship.)

Having recently sold the Nordic Prince, Song of Norway and Sun Viking, Royal Caribbean is obviously positioning itself as a mega-ship line, with spacious, comfortable, new ships and the "ship as destination" experience that many cruisers seem to expect. Song of America is not such a ship, and I was well aware of that before boarding her, having researched the line in several of the fine books that rate and describe ships.

 

At 37,584 tons, and carrying 1,412 passengers at double occupancy (on our cruise, she carried 1,464) the Song of America is no longer considered a large ship. She was also built at a time when cruise lines believed passengers would be spending very little time in their cabins. She's a little less glitzy and a bit more crowded than ships like the gargantuan and immaculate Splendor of the Seas, with none of the soaring atriums and expanses of glass that are being built into more contemporary tonnage. One of the books I read in preparation for the trip said that the cabins aboard the Song come in three sizes: small, smaller, and smallest. Another suggested that they were "Oh-my-god" cabins, named after what most passengers say just after they open their cabin door. I had so steeled myself for the shock that, when my steward accidentally showed me to a broom closet, I happily inhabited it for the first two days of the cruise before I noticed something was wrong. (Just kidding!)

Actually, room 6050 is an inside double on the Upper Deck, just below the high rent district on the Promenade Deck above, with adequate if not spacious amenities, kept very clean by an excellent, courteous, and professional steward. While the decor throughout the ship is dated and very seventies, and while peach (the hue of inside cabins aboard) has never been my favorite color, I did find the cabin more than adequate for my needs, with two single couch/beds, a small desk, decent closet space, and one of those great cruise line "vertical bathrooms" where you have to do most everything standing up because there's no room to bend. Perhaps my sense of adequate space had something to do with the fact that I inhabited a double by myself.

A cruise to Bermuda starts with everyone up on deck, even in a brisk and chilly wind. There is something magical about sailing out of New York harbor down the Hudson River, past the towering skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline, past the Statue of Liberty, and then out the mouth of the harbor under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It was a brisk, late-September afternoon as we approached the Narrows. Many of the passengers had gone below after passing Ms. Liberty; but, being a tough old Vermonter I stayed up on deck in my shirt sleeves all the way to the bridge, with the breeze definitely freshening the closer we got to the sea. As we approached the bridge, the captain announced that the wind was stiff enough to make it dangerous to be on deck, and I did see one smallish person lifted off their feet briefly. I can take a hint. I headed below to get ready for dinner.

Food seems to be the thing that defines most cruiser's experiences. Many first-time cruisers expect white-gloved waiters to serve them Beluga caviar with mother-of-pearl spoons and drop peeled grapes in their mouths on demand. If you want that, I'm afraid you must pay a pretty stiff tariff and sail Seabourn, or one of its few competitors. Royal Caribbean serves, at its worst, high-end banquet food, and at its best, food you might find in a restaurant most would describe as "gourmet." Personally, high-end banquet food is fine with me, and the occasional gourmet delights do just that -- delight. So I was generally pleased with the food served in the Madame Butterfly Dining Room throughout the cruise. Of course, I had done my homework and knew exactly what to expect.

I should tell you that, like many of the spaces aboard, the dining room shows a bit of wear and tear. Some of the upholstery is frayed, the carpet is stained here and there, and you will note more surface corrosion, faded teak, and far less glitz and sizzle throughout the Song than on some of the newest ships. But an attentive staff and well-established routines make for a seamless vacation in which one at all times feels well-cared for, if not pampered. And then there is the price. Having sailed the Splendor about a year ago, I can tell you that RCI does take all elements into account when pricing their cruises. In fact, I was a bit irritated with some of the few negative comments I heard during the cruise, which seemed gratuitous given a fair assessment of the ship and the price. It would seem some of the least satisfied passengers are perhaps ill-informed and have not done their homework well, or have not put themselves in the hands of an experienced, cruise-only agency. Get real, folks! The per-diem costs for most cruises are the best bargain in travel today. Just do your homework and make sure you understand what to expect.

I'd like to tell you about the first night and day aboard the Song of America. I'd like to, but I can't. I was exhausted, went to bed right after dinner, and slept through until 4:00 p.m. the next day! The only things that troubled my slumbers were the bureau drawers rolling in and out, and the closet doors opening and banging closed again. No, my cabin wasn't haunted. But the fifteen foot seas we encountered the first night out (think two-story building in height) recalled a line from Steven Crane's great sea tale The Open Boat:

"a singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats."

While it would have taken much larger seas than fifteen feet to swamp the Song, many of the passengers were apparently quite out of sorts for that first night and day I slept through. When I finally emerged from my Rip Van Winklean slumber for dinner the next day, I overheard an elderly gentleman exclaim to his wife in obvious disgust, "Christ, the ship is like a morgue." Normally, I can get seasick in the bathtub if I drop the bar of soap and make waves, but with liberal doses of Bonine, and a long, deep sleep, I avoided illness entirely.

On Tuesday, we tied up at St. George about five hours late, having slowed down due to rough seas. But Bermuda was worth the wait. It is a clean, friendly island, without too many vehicles (residents may only have one car per family, and visitors cannot rent cars at all). The solution: mopeds. Thousands of mopeds, many piloted by businessmen in half a suit. While I had heard of the Bermudian habit of wearing suit coats and ties up top, and shorts and knee socks below, it took me awhile to get accustomed to that truncated vision. It looks a bit like they couldn't decide whether to go to work or vacation, so compromised with clothing for both.

Of course, it's easy to imagine why they might have such a dilemma. Bermuda is simply gorgeous, with pink sand beaches, lush, tropical vegetation, pleasant temperatures, and a color palette shifted to the pastel end of the rainbow. Living there must be something of a vacation in and of itself. I had some wonderful experiences ashore (more on that later).

But back to the ship. Like every ship, the Song has patterns of activity, with crowds flowing to one location or another much as though they were tides responding to the pull of the moon. Remember that one of my prime motives aboard was to avoid lines, crowds, and noise. I'll bet you think that's impossible on a large cruise ship. Think again. I dined at the early seating, at a table for eight inhabited by only five people, and was generally done with dinner by 7:30 -- which is the time the second-seating entertainment began. On a few evenings, I slipped in to the Can Can Lounge to watch a bit of the show, and saw two really fine comedians -- Randy Pryor and Jeff Kerner -- and one of my favorite lounge singers of all times, Al Frazier. What a set of lungs. The guy sounds like he simmered his vocal cords in honey, and when he gets down into the low end of the scale your chair vibrates. Between songs, he keeps up a practiced, joking patter. Even though I've heard him tell some of the jokes at other times, I find myself smiling anyway. Just a super entertainer.

The Can Can Lounge itself is comfortable, and small enough that even in the back you can easily see the performers. The relatively narrow beam of the ship also means the room doesn't need a lot of columns to hold the decks above up -- and obstruct your view while doing so. I found all of the performances that I attended very well done, even the inevitable "If I were not upon the sea" number on the last night at sea.

On the evenings that I skipped entertainment, I had the upper two decks to myself from about 7:30 until nearly 11:00. Seriously. Except for the two bartenders in the forward pool bar, and the occasional couple strolling through, I was virtually the only passenger on the Compass and Sun Decks every evening. Everyone else was either at dinner, or at the evening performance. So in St. George, I sat in a deck chair looking out over the little hamlet while the peeper frogs (Eleutherodactylus johnstonei) racketed the night full of their trilling, and I watched the lights wink out one by one ashore completely alone, as though I were on the deck of my own yacht at anchor in a safe, warm, and peaceful harbor.

My cabin also allowed for a great deal of privacy. One thing about inside rooms: you feel like you're in a cocoon, cut off from most outside noises and any hint of natural light. This is the first time I've sailed in an inside room, and I found I enjoyed the experience. Remember, another of my primary goals was to get some rest. Well, where better to sleep than in a soundless, dark room? It was so peaceful, in fact, that I often found myself sleeping far past my usual rising time. Which is why I missed the journey from St. George to Hamilton, Bermuda's capital. I went to bed on Tuesday evening and awoke to find the ship tied up to the pier on Hamilton's main street with never a hint of a bump to awake me. Good job, Captain Eigel Eriksen!

Hamilton is a bustling, mini-metropolis with a decided British accent and hundreds of snarling (well, maybe more like buzzing and grumbling) scooters and mopeds. The Song, when she is tied up to the wharf, is the best hotel in town, with easy and immediate access to the main street. Wednesday evening, there was a street fair, and Front Street, one of the main streets in Hamilton, was alive with Caribbean music, cooking, colorful people, and activity. All right, even a crusty Vermonter can be drawn to something like that. I did wander through the crowds and some of the shops.

The best place in Hamilton for me, however, was par la Ville Park, an immaculately-kept public park, free admission, right in the heart of the city. From one of the park benches, I could see the Song's mast towering over the tree line, and hear the traffic murmuring in the distance, but mostly paid attention to the profusion of exotic plants and the wonderful, unfamiliar bird songs that made me feel as though I had been accidentally transported to a Tarzan movie. Most of the trees, shrubs, and plants are carefully identified with permanent markers, and I was introduced to the Royal, Travelers, and Princess Palms, as well as the Loquat and the Frangipani, along with many other plant growths. I was curious enough about some of the wildlife -- which apparently wouldn't stand still long enough for the gardeners to label them -- that I purchased the Sporty Little Field Guide to Bermuda, available at many of the shops in the city. I found that one of the most vivid and outspoken birds in the park was not a native. The Great Kiskadee is an import; as the Guide notes, it is

"a very aggressive bird that was introduced from Trinidad in the 1950's to eat a certain kind of lizard that was eating too much of some kind of beetle that was eating too many of some insect or other."

I guess the Kiskadees now eat just about everything, but I really enjoyed listening to their call (which is the endlessly repeated sound "kis-ka-dee" -- wonder how they got that name).

If you are an experienced cruiser, you may wonder how I found time to wander around looking at vegetation and wildlife. That would be difficult on the typical, port-intensive Caribbean cruise. But a Bermuda cruise is different. For one thing, Bermuda is a cluster of islands all by itself in the Atlantic, too far from any other ports for a seven-day cruise. The loop cruise from New York therefore means you board ship on Sunday, arrive in Bermuda on Tuesday, then depart on Friday for a Sunday morning return. That's four full days in nearly the same location (the ship first docks in St. George, then sets sail the next day for Hamilton, about twenty miles away). It also results in two full days at sea. If ocean travel makes your stomach queasy, this is one of the best itineraries possible, as the ship spends four entire days as essentially a floating hotel, without a hint of pitch and roll to trouble you.

As I knew I'd be writing this review, I made sure to visit most of the decks and facilities on the ship. Places I missed include the beauty parlor, the infirmary, and the bridge. I spent quite awhile roaming the decks, often in the evening when almost no one else was out and about. I must say that the new, multi-deck atriums on Royal Caribbean's newest ships make it much easier to find your way around. An architect would call these "hubs" or "gathering places" -- places one goes to get somewhere else within a structure easily. In computer parlance, multi-deck atriums are "user friendly." Song of America lacks such a gathering place, and is therefore a little more difficult to navigate. For example, Deck 6, the Upper Deck where my room was located, can only be reached from the forward stairs or elevators. As I entered the ship amidships, I spent a little time initially going up and down the midships stairs looking in vain for Deck 6. I'd find Deck 5, then go up the stairs and find myself on Deck 7; scratch my head and start over. It's like that old Vermonter joke, "you can't get there from heah." And as you know, men won't ask directions even if they're lost in Antarctica and a dog sled team comes by.

I also amused myself one evening for a good while trying to find the elevator for the soaring Viking Crown Lounge. You just can't help wanting to go to Royal Caribbean's trademark lounge when you are aboard, and sit comfortably ensconced in a lounge 120 feet above sea level, with a 360 degree view. But on the Song, you may have a little difficulty finding the way there. To get there, you have to either cut through the Guys & Dolls Lounge, or go out on deck, head aft toward the spacious Sports Deck with its abundant shuffleboard courts, and enter a small, glassed-in corridor aft of the Guys & Dolls Lounge, finally taking a rather small elevator to your destination. Both the Viking Crown Lounge and the Guys & Dolls Lounge are mostly late-night spots, where the singles and the party enthusiasts cluster. I overheard one such passenger remark that his only problem on the cruise was that he was "eating too much to keep a buzz on." To each his own.


Viking Crown Lounge

The gymnasium also requires venturing out on deck to reach it. It is mostly window-less, and quite a bit more compact than you may be accustomed to. I never saw it over-crowded, however, so it is apparently holding its own on this ship. I did lose my usual twenty dollars in the well-equipped Casino Royale on the Cabaret Deck. I also enjoyed a number of breakfasts and lunches at the casual Verandah Cafe, often emerging from my cocoon to grab a late, buffet breakfast out in the fresh, ocean air and the bright sun. And I spent much of my time reading novels on the Compass and Sun Decks, slathered in sun block, while attentive bar waiters strolled by spinning their trays on one finger.

That deck seems a long way away from today in Vermont, which is gray and damp, with an almost freezing drizzle coming steadily down. Part of the novelty of a cruise vacation lies in the contrast between the average day in your life and the average day aboard ship. That contrast helps give rise to vacation goals like the ones I earlier had established: limited transportation connections, relaxing, comfortable surroundings, abundant food and sunshine, peace and quiet. Only the latter appear difficult to achieve on a cruise. So, did Song of America meet the test? Well, I read seven novels aboard, if that is any indication of the "peace and quiet quotient. " And the others are almost a given on any RCI cruise. This cruise provided a distinctive vacation in relaxed and comfortable surroundings, even for a quirky Vermonter. So if I were grading this test, I'd have to give Song of America an "A."


Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont. His columns include material for a planned book on the subject of cruising, and he is interested in your comments and suggestions. Brent may be reached at: bbetit@bigfoot.com.


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